Walk Into Shein

The Chinese hyper-fastfashion online label is now into physical stores: a pop-up in Osaka, and now its first permanent physical store in Tokyo

Shein pop-up in Osaka

Shein is not only going big, they’re getting physical. Two stores in Japan, the country with some of the best stores and shopping experiences in the world, are now Shein standalones. First a pop-up in Osaka (till the 26th of January or six days after the Lunar New Year) and then a proper bricks-and-mortar in Tokyo, touted “the world’s first”. It opened three Sundays ago in the streetwear/sneaker (but not quite hipster) stretch of Cat Street, Ura-Harajuku, a ten-minute, or so, walk from the famed Takeshita-Dori. These are not modest little stores. The glass-front Tokyo space spreads over two stories (or 201 sqm), and is stocked with merchandise for men (although somewhat limited) and women, including cosmetics, and even products for pets. Clothes (the largest category) can be tried on by Japanese customers for the first time, prior to purchase, on-line.

In Osaka, the pop-up, also a double-floor affair, opened a month earlier. Part of the Shein Popup: The Japan Tour (which will includes five cities in all), it sits on Osaka’s main shopping street of Shinsaibashi, in a space formerly occupied by Uniqlo, and is in the company of competitor-neighbours Gap and H&M (how thrilled is the Swedish brand now that Shein is directly opposite?), turning this area of the street into a multi-nation fast-fashion hub. Japanese media enthusiastically reported of “more than 800 items” on display in the Shein pop-up, but with the crowd, it’s hard to see the vastness of the offerings. There are, to the thrill of the Japanese, nine fitting rooms, each decorated differently (and with considerable camp!) so that the trying-on of clothes could also be a selfie moment to be shared on social media. These do not include seven additional photo-op spots throughout the store. Shein’s target audience is unambiguous: smartphone-dependent, must-be-visible-online Gen-Zers.

…fitting rooms are each decorated differently so that the trying-on of clothes could also be a selfie moment to be shared on social media

Despite the staggering array of merchandise, nothing in the two stores are for outright purchase. Shoppers can browse and try, but there are no cashiers for you to take your desired products to, to seal the deal. Shein is essentially a showroom, although, in Tokyo, the company calls it an “event space”. To purchase (which is surely the intention of opening a physical store), customers scan a QR code on a hang tag attached to every product. They would then be directed to the online page (or on the app) of the selected merchandise. An order of their picks can be placed. This is not Japan’s first browse-only fashion space. We remember that in 2019 there was a GU (Uniqlo’s sister brand) concept store in nearby Omotesando (close to the Harajuku station) called GU Style Studio, where shoppers were able to enjoy everything the store had to offer, except make a purchase. To buy, one scans a QR code too, and would be directed to GU online. There was also an avatar you can create to dress yourself digitally in GU clothes. Even earlier, in the ’90s, Shiseido opened a store—also on Omotesando, in a former apartment block where Omotesando Hills now stands—for women (and men!) to try merchandise (even do a makeover) the brand offered, for however long they wish, but nothing was for sale.

A Shein spokesperson told Forbes that the brand’s “focus remains digital-first.” He also said, “Shein customers can experience our fashion and lifestyle products at our pop-ups around the world. We will continue to expand our pop-up roadmap and keep making the beauty of fashion accessible to all.” Despite the impressive turnouts for both stores on opening day (in Osaka, 3,000 people reportedly turned up, and it took two and half hours to enter the store; in Tokyo, more than 150 were in line even before the store opened at 11am that day), it is not certain if Shein will be a stunning success in Japan when the country has their own low-priced but better-made fashion brands, such as the cheap and cheerful Wego, the fashion-reliable Niko And …, and, to a large extent, Uniqlo’s engaging GU, whose past collaborator included Undercover—it’s hard to get cooler than that.

Shein, launched in 2008, could be trying to rewrite their brand narrative in both visual and tactile ways, given the (still) bad rep they receive in so many parts of the world (they do not sell in China, where the brand was founded and where the clothes are manufactured), compounded by a Greenpeace Germany report published last week, claiming that some Shein products “contained hazardous chemicals that break EU regulatory limits”. Shein is probably aware that their customers do not care. The response to the two Japanese stores may be indicative. In both, one snappy slogan greets shoppers: “Wear your Wonderful”. In telling their Japanese customers to do so, perhaps Shein is trying to convince the skeptics that they do, too. Let other brands worry about the environment.

Photo: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD

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